A pretty, turn-of-the-millennium Western romance with epic aspirations stunted due to studio meddling.
By Jason Hink
Looking for a 2-hour time-waster from the dying days of the 20th century? Look no further than 2000’s All the Pretty Horses, a glossy, ambitious production directed by the multi-talented Billy Bob Thornton and starring Matt Damon, Penélope Cruz, Henry Thomas and Lucas Black. Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, our friends at Mill Creek Entertainment continue to delight with deep cuts from studio catalogs—this time a forgotten Miramax curio—never before on Blu-ray.
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Late Gen-Xers remember a time in the mid-90s when seeing that Miramax logo meant we were about to watch something cool…something with that edgy, indie feel, baby. But by 2000, Miramax was deep into its Disney era, having being gobbled up by the Mouse House in 1993…although still operating with a large amount of independence for studio head brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein. The old auteur-versus-Big Studio dynamic would once again rear its head in this era with All the Pretty Horses, as a moviemaker’s large-scale epic ambitions were quashed by the studio for more pragmatic, business-minded concerns.
The plot: In 1949, the war is long over, but it sucks for John Grady Cole (Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity), whose grandfather has just died, meaning the ranch Cole works on is now up for sale, and even his his mother would rather have the cash than keep the old family farm. Now homeless, Cole decides an adventure is just what the doctor ordered—an Old West adventure! It’s not the 19th century anymore, but Cole can come up with something approximating that old cowboy spirit, right?
Step No. 1 is recruiting his tag-along best friend, Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas, the kid from E.T.), who Cole convinces to leave behind his own family’s ranch in Texas to join him on a horseback trek across the border into Mexico, where they’ll throw up a wing and a prayer to find work 150 miles from home. Along the way, they run into little sh*t-starter Jimmy (Lucas Black, Sling Blade, TV’s NCIS: New Orleans), a smartass 13-year-old they allow to travel with them, especially after watching him prove he can back up his cockiness with a stellar shooting display. Jimmy doesn’t stay long, though; a series of misadventures eventually separates him from Cole and Lacey.
The two young cowboys find work in Mexico for a wealthy ranch owner, and we’re treated to a day-long, music video-style session of Cole and Lacey saddle-breaking horses on the ranch. Their work is admired but…a wildcard is thrown into the mix—the playful, sexy daughter of a young aristocrat who happens to be hanging out at the ranch, Alejandra Villarreal (Penélope Cruz, Vanilla Sky). You might’ve guessed: Cole falls in love with young Alejandra, and the sparks fly between the two despite interference from Alejandra’s wealthy aunt (Míriam Colón). Inevitably, across-the-border adventures take a turn for the worse as Alejendra’s is removed from the ranch while Cole and Lacey are jailed on bogus charges…where they once again meet youngster Jimmy, who’s in a whole world of poo with the local Mexican police. With everyone on the brink of getting killed, will our weekend cowboys survive without the safety net of their families back in Texas? Will they be able to save little Jimmy? Will Cole finally hook up with Alejandra? And when the sh*t hits the fan, will anyone remember or like this movie, other than Roger Ebert?
Often it’s what happens behind the scenes of a movie that’s more fun to explore than the movie itself, but that’s not to say I didn’t modestly enjoy All the Pretty Horses, which I’d never watched before (and yes, those horses were indeed pretty). One would think the pairing of edgy renaissance man Billy Bob Thornton and soon-to-be megastar Matt Damon would be like discovering gold in a Mexican stream…but instead, we get a disjointed yarn that earns points for being pretty (thanks to cinematography by Barry Markowitz) and sounding “epic,” thanks to a score led by country music artist Marty Stuart along with Kristin Wilkinson and Larry Paxton. But this wasn’t exactly the look and sound that the filmmaker wanted.
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Audiences were primed for a good time considering the hot streak Matt Damon was on, having scored a string of hits including Good Will Hunting (1997), Rounders (1998) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Billy Bob Thornton just a few years earlier had hit big in his directorial debut, the 1996 drama Sling Blade, which he also penned. For his followup, All the Pretty Horses, the stage was set for indie-darling epicness: a huge, critically loved star and a director ready to go full auteur to ring in the new millennium year of 2000. But the final result didn’t play out that way when hit theaters on Christmas day that year.
What was originally “epic” about All the Pretty Horses was the initial cut, which came in at an epic length—over three hours! According to an interview with Damon, the film’s original composer, Daniel Lanois, snatched up a classic 1949 guitar and wrote a “spare, haunting score.” According to Damon, “We did the movie listening to his score. It informed everything we did.” But for all the accoutrements involved in making the movie larger than life, one man wasn’t pleased—Miramax mega-producer Harvey Weinstein, who felt the movie was way too long and didn’t give a sh*t about the jangly, let’s-be-hip score. So what did he do? He cut the running time down to just under 2 hours (117 minutes) and replaced the Lanois score with the music by Stuart, Wilkinson and Paxton, which actually sounds more epic, even with it’s been-there-done-that orchestral swells (I found the score quite enjoyable, actually). The original cut (and score) apparently exists, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it to be released to the public.
The whole experience was annoying for Damon, who later said Thornton’s heart troubles at the time were related to the stress of fighting for his vision of the movie…and you can see those compromises on the screen, mainly in the way the narrative is literally stitched together from a collection of episodes that are too short and fleeting to have the intended effect on the viewer (many scenes end by fading to black; after the umpteenth time you see this you realize we’re skipping ahead in the story…and it doesn’t feel organic—it feels like something’s getting cut out).
What would’ve happened had Weinstein not interfered? Damon is solid as the lead cowboy born about a century too late, looking to find a life that more closely mirrors the simple, old-west lifestyle he longs for. Henry Thomas and Penélope Cruz are fine in their supporting duties (and don’t buy that “some passions can never be tamed” line shown on some of the posters with Damon and Cruz appearing to heat up the screen with a “forbidden love”—because they don’t) while Lucas Black—just 18 at the time—provides the most fun for the viewer, with his 13-year-old Jimmy Blevins a hootin’, hollerin’ farm boy just out for kicks, but who also shows real emotion when things get particularly bad for him. In the end, All the Pretty Horses grossed an un-pretty $18.1 million against its $57 million budget, hardly what Mr. Weinstein was hoping for from this collection of big guns he’d assembled for the next big Matt Damon showpiece.
And so it stands as a nicely shot, but little-remembered and little-seen speed bump in the careers of Damon and Thornton, despite their efforts. All the better for it to be released on Blu-ray by Mill Creek for its 20th anniversary in 2020—a budget boutique company doing fine work in keeping movies like All the Pretty Horses in circulation for the physical media world. The 1080p HD picture is presented in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. There are no special features on the disc, but English SDH subtitles are included.